(sequel to "Carpenter's Hammer" in Nightscapes # 8 and "Condemned" in Nightscapes # 11)
Carpenter breathed into his cupped hands in an attempt to infuse some warmth into them as he took a break from writing in his personal journal. He rubbed them together briskly and finally jammed them into his armpits, cursing the damp chill in the air.
"It's the damn humidity," he muttered as he fastened the top button on his worn but thick grey wool sweater. Father Nick Carpenter of the Vatican City Supernatural Investigations Section was a large man in a small room. His iron-grey hair was short cropped and his seamed face gave one the impression of great responsibilities borne longer than most. The bright blue eyes behind the steel rimmed glasses showed great vitality and a strong will. A gold earring gleamed in the room's pale light.
The room he sat in was small and dank, with rivulets of moisture coursing down one oily iron wall. A small desk, and wooden chair with a Spartan military-style cot were all the furnishings that would fit within the chamber including a grey metal hook on which was slung a lumpy khaki duffel bag. Overhead hung a wire caged, metal hooded bulb that swung gently and cast swaying shadows. A thrumming sound of distant motors vibrated through the walls and was punctuated by muffled clanks and hisses.
Carpenter reached for a solid-looking steel thermos flask and unscrewed the cap, pouring out a generous cup of sweet, well-creamed coffee into a dented metal mug. Clasping the mug in both hands he sipped the beverage as he read the entries in his journal.
A sharp knock sounded at the door.
"Come in," Carpenter said, setting his mug on the desk. Curls of steam wafted upward.
The door opened to reveal a tall, thin man wearing a thick grey turtleneck sweater under a worn, salt-weathered leather coat. He removed the battered officer's cap he wore and shook droplets of salt water from the plastic covering as he closed the door behind him.
"Some rough water up there; we'll be diving to a calmer depth soon. Good evening, Father. How are you tonight?" The voice was soft but clear. Carpenter offered his cot for the man to sit on and he nodded, sitting down.
"Alternately freezing and queasy, Captain. Is it always this cold on board?" The man smiled and placed his cap on the pillow.
"Normally no, Father, but we're farther south than we usually patrol and there were problems adapting to the colder temperatures."
"I thought this was a modern submarine," Carpenter grunted. The Captain smiled slightly.
"It was, when it was built in 1975. The Vatican may be rich beyond some people's dreams of avarice but it still sees more sense in buying five old diesel subs instead of one nuclear."
Carpenter rolled his eyes in understanding and offered the Captain his still steaming mug.
"I only have one mug here; you're welcome to this if you like."
The Captain shook his head with a faint smile.
"Thank you but no, Father. I have to get back to the bridge and relieve my first officer. Please join us again in the officer's mess for dinner tonight, though. The cook has found a new recipe for sausage and red cabbage he's been itching to foist on us. Please bring your colleague as well."
Carpenter smiled in return.
"I'd be delighted; that's the warmest room on this boat. The usual time?"
"That's right, Father." The Captain donned his cap and stood, moving towards the door, "I'm looking forward to it; I'm holding you to your promise to tell us about the Petra Incident. I, for one, can't wait to hear it." With that, the Captain bowed slightly and left, closing the door quietly behind him.
Carpenter frowned slightly at the mention of Petra. True, it was available information to Vatican personnel of the Captain's rank but it was linked to some very uncomfortable memories and tragic moments. He would have to find a way to skirt those parts of the story while leaving enough heroic derring-do to excite the junior officers. He smiled a little sadly at that thought then drained his mug.
Another knock sounded as Carpenter bent over his journal once more.
"What now? Come in!" Carpenter growled.
The door opened and a short, plump young man entered hesitantly.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Father but I needed to talk to you."
"Well, don't stand there looking all dejected, Terence. Come in and sit down. What's the trouble?" The young man closed the door and gingerly sat down on the cot. He shivered slightly and zipped up his tan jacket.
"It's awful cold in here, Father. Can't the Captain find a warmer berth for you?"
"I can handle it. Let's hear your confession." Terence stared in surprise.
"Father, I didn't come here for, that is, I didn't mean you to think I wanted . . ."
"Relax, lad. That was a priest joke. What's on your mind?" Carpenter smiled at the boy's reaction. They were all like this when they were young. He remembered how nervous he had been when he first met Bishop Ewing, the man who first put him on his strange and apocalyptic path. That was more years ago than he wanted to ponder.
"Sit down, boy. Let's hear it."
The youth sat lightly on the cot and his hands fidgeted; he frowned slightly.
"Father, I know that you said you'd reveal the details of this mission when we were under way, so I'm wondering if you might consider . . . that is . . ."
"If I'd finally get around to it?" Carpenter laughed lightly.
"I don't mean to press, Father." The boy seemed flustered.
"Yes, you do. And you're absolutely right. I guess I've been holding off because . . ." Carpenter's face clouded.
"Because I'm not experienced enough? Too green? I'm sure I can handle this mission, Father. I do have the Bishop's approval." The lad stood, frustrated with Carpenter's hesitance and with the fearful realization that he might be justified.
"Take it easy, fella. I read your resume; you have all the background one needs for this line of work. I recommended you for this operation."
"You -- you did?" He sat down again, his cheeks flushing with emotion. "Forgive me, Father. I'm sorry I raised my voice."
"Not at all. What I meant to say was that I tried to stall telling you any details about this mission because I -- well, I guess I wanted to allow you to hang onto some cherished ideas and thoughts as long as possible before I smash them to bits with what I have to tell you."
The boy's face took on a solemn cast. "Go on, Father."
Carpenter sighed and looked at his empty coffee cup, wishing for a torrid, shamefully desperate moment that it contained smooth, sweet bourbon.
He winced and rubbed his forehead.
"Ok, lad. This is what happened. Firstly, have you ever heard of the Vostok Antarctic Research Station?"
"Umm, yes, I have. It's a Soviet; I mean Russian base isn't it? I recall something about a vast lake discovered deep under the ice there. That's about all I know about it."
Carpenter nodded."That's right. That's pretty much all the world knows about the incident with the exception of the Russian government, the staff of scientists at the site and us. 'Us' being the Vatican Occult Investigative Council." Carpenter reached for a battered leather briefcase and withdrew a smudged folder of documents and placed it on the desktop. It was then he noticed the boy sliding his hands into the sleeves of his thin coat and hunching his shoulders.
"I know it's freezing down here. Have a cup of this." He opened the flask and poured out a measure of the still-steaming coffee. The boy smiled self-consciously and took the offered mug gratefully.
Carpenter opened the folder to reveal a sheaf of official looking typed documents and hand-written notes. Paper-clipped inside the folder cover was a small transparent envelope containing photographs. Carpenter removed the various papers and arranged them on the desk so they could be viewed as a group. He unfolded what turned out to be a well-creased and oft-refolded map of Antarctica; pencilled lines and inscriptions were visible in several colours. A prominent '?' marked the Vostok base.
The young man sipped the coffee as he studied the array of paperwork.
"Vostok Base is the most remote outpost on Earth, not counting the American South Pole Base, which is far larger, more modern and has a population of over 200 staff and scientists. Vostok has about a dozen or so inhabitants during the winter months who are effectively stranded there until the next shift arrives. There are only three scheduled air cargo shipments a year and an overland fuel tractor convoy which takes two months to get there from Russia's Mirny coastal station. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was taken at Vostok Base in 1983; minus 89.3 degrees Celsius."
The young man swallowed his coffee audibly.
"Is that where we're headed?"
"Ultimately, yes," Carpenter said, shuffling through the mass of paper." We have a few scheduled stops along the way. Let me tell you a little more about the lake itself; the water surface lies beneath nearly two miles of glacial ice and its maximum depth is 3200 feet. The lake is approximately 124 miles long and covers 5400 square miles. That much you can look up yourself online. But this is something only a few people know about and you're about to become one of them." Carpenter pulled a plastic-laminated sheet from the folder and placed it on top of the collection of documents.
"What is it, Father?" The youth peered at the image.
"This is a radar map of the lake's bottom. Last year the aircraft that carries supplies to the station performed a radar and infra-red survey, collating enough data to compile this map." Carpenter's eyes narrowed as he spoke.
"This area here is the deepest part of the lake," his finger traced the course of the scan, "and here is where the anomaly was found." Carpenter placed another laminated image atop the first and paused.
"This is a computer-enhanced, high-resolution image of the deep basin; what do you see?"
The youth hunched over the grainy image and frowned. He said nothing for several minutes and finally, though reluctantly, spoke.
"This is a strangely geometrical pattern over here, like concentric circles."
Carpenter smiled."Too concentric?"
The boy's face lifted to look at Carpenter with a dawning realization.
"Father, what does this mean?"
Carpenter nodded, knowing the boy had already surmised the meaning. "The patterns suggest the remains of an artificial structure; an artificial structure at the bottom of a primordial lake that has been sealed under two miles of solid ice before mankind existed on this planet."
The young man stared silently at the mass of maps and documents, then at Carpenter. "Why are we going there?"
Carpenter hesitated, wiping his glasses with a shirttail and taking a deep breath. "If the discovery is legitimate, it will re-write a chunk of history that won't sit well with a world long satisfied with its cosmic star billing in the Universe."
Terence frowned. "The Church means to suppress the discovery?"
Carpenter paused, slowly shuffling the mass of charts and paper into order. "It depends on what we find; there are a lot of things in this world that the general population have no knowledge of and I'm about to tell you some of them." Carpenter placed the sheaf into the folder and slipped it back into his briefcase. "Under most circumstances, we don't get too interested in the discovery of so-called 'lost cities' and so forth because most of them are just that; lost cities and usually the Church already knows about them and isn't concerned. That's because they're lost human cities and just another archaeological puzzle for some university to expend their budget on."
Carpenter's face darkened. "Sometimes, however, the ruins are older; sometimes the ruins show traces of things that can't be explained by current knowledge of history and that's when the Church takes a definite interest."
Terence's eyebrows rose incredulously. "What kinds of traces?"
"Peculiar building proportion and geometry. Construction engineering beyond what we know man's ancestors were capable of. Strange artifacts." Carpenter's voice lowered, "Evidence of pre-human culture."
"You mean, before mankind?" Terence whispered.
Carpenter nodded. "It's extremely rare, of course. There's actually only been two specific instances of pre-human ruins found on earth and both are absent from the standard history texts. One mass of ruins is in the Australian outback and the other is in Antarctica."
Terence's eyes widened at the name."Is that where --?"
"No, boy. But the fact that there are traces of potentially pre-human ruins on a continent that already has documented historical anomalies makes the Church very curious -- and nervous."
"Nervous?" The young man's face paled.
"The other site is fairly distant from Vostok; maybe a thousand miles from the South Pole station. No one has set foot there since 1930, when the ruins there were accidentally discovered during an Antarctic expedition sponsored by Vatican City University."
Terence looked thoughtful for a moment. "That reminds me of that old H.P. Lovecraft story, 'At The Mountains of Madness.'"
Carpenter smiled a little. "'At the Mountains of Madness' was based on the journals of the expedition leader, Professor W. Harper Littlejohn. Lovecraft had a mutual acquaintance that got him an opportunity to study the documents that were normally kept locked away in the archives."
"Was his story accurate?"
"He exaggerated in some places and understated in some others. If you want to brief yourself on the facts of the expedition, you can study Littlejohn's journals here." Carpenter reached into his briefcase again, and withdrew a worn file folder. He handed it to the young man.
Terence stared at the scuffed dossier and took it wordlessly. He tucked the documents under one arm and stood up.
"You should have time to read the bulk of the papers by dinnertime. I'm going to have a short nap until then. I'll see you at the Officer's Mess." With those words Carpenter saw the boy to his door and, wrapping a blanket around himself, settled down on the narrow bed and, lulled by the muffled clanking and rumbling of distant motors, was soon asleep.
Terence made his way back to his quarters with a short detour to the mess hall to get his own flask of coffee. He closed the door behind him and placed the folder on his own small metal desk. He seated himself, sipping the surprisingly good coffee and opened the manila cover of the file.
He began to read and soon lost himself in the seventy-year-old expedition report.
Carpenter buttoned his jacket and closed the door behind him as he headed towards the submarine's mess room. Terence met him at the door holding the dossier protectively under his arm.
"Good evening, Father. I finished studying the file."
"Interesting stuff, eh lad? Now you have an idea what we may be facing." Carpenter opened the mess room door.
Terence grimaced. "I suppose I should feel privileged being privy to this classified information, but I feel more frightened than anything else."
"That's good, boy. It'll keep you alert. Come on. Let's have some dinner; I'm starved."
Terence looked enviously at Carpenter and wished for equal calm in the face of impending horror.
A week later the submarine was docked at Mirny, the Russian Antarctic Coastal Research Station. Alongside the sub was a substantial cargo vessel whose cranes and derricks were busily lowering a variety of large, crated hardware to the snow-swept dock platform. Carpenter and Terence, wrapped in thick jackets and scarves and wearing protective goggles in the face of swirling, icy gusts, stood shivering in the open conning tower of the sub watching the unloading. Carpenter's knowledge of Cyrillic text was limited but he could make out the name 'KRASNOUFIMSK' on its bows. "That's as hard to pronounce as it is to spell," Carpenter muttered.
Terence smiled at the remark. The round hatchway clanked and swung open. The sub captain, similarly wrapped and goggled, appeared in the hatchway and handed Carpenter a dull metal cylinder.
"If you needed hot coffee anywhere, it would be up here."
"Thanks very much, Captain., Carpenter said gratefully, pouring a capful for his young partner then sipping the steaming liquid from the neck of the thermos flask himself.
It looks like we'll be saying goodbye in short order, Father. We'll miss you here; you too, son." The Captain looked at the two men from the confines of the hatchway, a look of fleeting sorrow crossing his lined features and he then sank back into the protecting bulk of the submarine.
Terence looked at Carpenter. "I can't tell whether he's glad or sorry that we're leaving."
"A good bit of both I imagine, lad. He knows what business I'm in."
Terence smiled. "You mean we, don't you?"
Carpenter returned the grin. "I suppose I do." His gaze turned towards the roped and cabled masses being lowered to the snowy ground below them. "I suppose I do."
The rumble was audible but after two weeks it had become something to be ignored with some effort. However, the vibration from the huge tractor treads was harder to overlook, and both Carpenter and his protégé's bones ached from the sensation. The Russian trans-Antarctic fuel transport vehicle that made its way across the frozen, wind-swept plains from Mirny to the Vostok Research Station on a yearly basis was a gruelling, brutal mode of transportation more befitting a lunar expedition than any earthly destination. Then again, the ghostly, frozen terrain might well have seemed an alien landscape to the eyes of men who, but for a grim duty, would gladly make tracks to warmer climes.
The vehicle was large, tracked and was towing a series of inter-connecting modules on sled-like runners that carried the oblate containers of gasoline and heating oil that made Vostok station a viable though Spartan workplace throughout the long bitter Antarctic winter. The vehicle had one long, flatbed style component that bore a large, horizontal cylindrical mass topped by a narrow hump, all roughly concealed by a huge, wrinkled grey tarpaulin that was criss-crossed with well-bound ropes and frost-coated bungee lines. Blowing snow crusted the cold-stiffened fabric and formed hard drifts in the crannies and folds making it difficult to read the stencilled lettering that spelled out Vatican City Supernatural Investigations.
Carpenter spent the days eating, sleeping and conversing with Terence over coffee and dog-eared folders and notebooks. The trip took many weeks and the darkness was unchanging; so much so that there might as well have been no windows in the cab of the tractor vehicle. As it was, frost coated the glass so thickly that it would have eventually needed a screwdriver to chip away the glacial layers. The tractor vehicle consisted of a control area in the fore, though at the present time it was unmanned, as the vehicle's path was being controlled by computer and GPS satellite. This meant the commander of the convoy was playing cards with the three other men that comprised the crew of the transport train, cigarette smoke and laughter filling the narrow cabin. Behind the control cabin, the quarters for passengers like Carpenter and the rest of his team, and then another connected tram-like section that was loaded with boxes and barrels of equipment and provisions.
Carpenter sat on a worn upholstered bench fixed into the scuffed wall of the cabin, a blanket wrapped about him as he closed a folder bulging with documents. Terence pulled the zipper of his jacket up a few more inches and tried to smile.
"Father, in spite of the great amount of research that you've gathered and the tremendous scope of this operation, I can't help but feel that -- well . . ."
Carpenter looked up from his folders and smiled thinly. "What, lad? Come on, out with it. It's good to finally hear you speak up."
Terence reddened and his voice dropped to a whisper. "I just mean that, well -- we seem to be in an awful hurry to get to Vostok. I mean, why go in the middle of winter in the bitterest weather? If we're only investigating a ruined city, what's the hurry? We have plenty of time. We do have time, right?"
Carpenter sighed and repacked his valise. "We're not sure of anything, really. The layout of the ruins as indicated by the sonar maps match drawings in several forbidden texts including the N'Arquai Ostraca, which are a collection of inscribed ceramic shards hinted by several archaeologists to be of pre-human origin. What we know about the recorded images suggests that the city was the focal point of a great power wielded by the inhabitants. Who those inhabitants were, we have no record besides what the dark texts hint at."
Terence frowned. "What hints are those?"
"Remember Dr. Littlejohn's records? Based on his analysis of the vast sculpted murals found there, the Old Ones feared nothing except a lurking presence far beyond a dim purple line of savagely cold mountains. There is a thought that what the Old Ones feared was not amidst those hazy mountains but beyond them."
The young man's eyes widened. "At Lake Vostok?"
"Possibly." Carpenter shivered and drew the blanket closer. Terence sipped coffee nervously." It's hard to truly understand what the Old Ones might have been trying to say; we only have Dr. Littlejohn's interpretation of carved hieroglyphs that were inscribed by an alien, pre-human intelligence. At our best, we can only put forth our best educated guess."
"So what will we attempting to do when we get there?" Terence grimaced as he anticipated an answer he knew he wasn't going to like.
"Well, providing all the technical details work out, we'll see the ruins up close and determine if there is a potential threat harboured there."
"And if there is a threat?"
"Then we deal with it; that is our job," Carpenter said finally, sealing the clasps of his case with a brittle snap.
The vehicle train clanked and grumbled its way over the dark, forbidding ice of the plateau inching towards its ultimate goal. The stars glittered icily in a frigid black sky as knife-blades of wind pried into whatever chinks and cracks the doors and windows of the tractor offered.
Hard snow and frost crusted the handrails and door handles of the tractor and it seemed that the entire train was cocooned in ice. The wind howled at whatever gods the wind obeys and Carpenter did something he had neglected for too long a time; he prayed.
Terence awoke, sweating, from a troubled sleep inhabited by shapeless monsters, spectral forms and a nameless dread that left him gasping with breathless terror. He took a few moments to recover his breath and sat on the edge of the cot, hiding while he was able in the warm darkness of his small cubicle. He shouldered on his thick sweater and felt around in the gloom for his boots, donning them as he prepared for one more cold, featureless day aboard the transport train.
Carpenter was already up and nursing his third coffee of the morning when Terence entered the narrow mess area that the crew and passengers shared. The air was blue with cigarette smoke and the mutters and grunts of men filtered through the sounds of clinking breakfast plates and coffee mugs.
Terence selected a few granola bars to accompany the dollop of oatmeal that he poured onto his plate from a steaming porridge pot that never seemed to empty. He poured coffee from a dented carafe that looked older than he was and finally, laden with some morning nourishment, he made his way to sit with Carpenter.
"Good morning, Father. How did you sleep?"
Carpenter looked up at the young man and smiled mildly. "Remarkably well. I sleep well when I'm under stress. Sort of an escape, I suppose."
Terence looked at Carpenter with a small frown. "Is something troubling you, Father?"
"These days, everything troubles me to one degree or another. I used to be able to handle stress of this kind quite well in my younger days but lately . . . well let's just say sometimes it gets a little out of hand."
"In what way Father?" Terence was troubled by this admission of weakness in the ordinarily stolid Carpenter.
"As you may have read in my dossier, I had a bad spell of alcohol dependency a few years back, right after the Sword of the Archangel affair. I lost my whole team on that case; a lot of good people who looked upon me for guidance and protection. I let them down. I shouldn't have survived that incident and because of that guilt, I drifted away from the Faith and wallowed in misery and cheap booze. It was the worst time of my life and I still cringe in shame over the memory of it."
Carpenter took a deep swallow of coffee and sighed, staring away into the smoky, gently rocking cabin.
Terence looked down at his plate and ate a few mouthfuls slowly, not knowing what to say. "Father, I did read of the incident, but I don't see how it could have worked out any different. How could anyone have made it different?"
Carpenter smiled at the youth's attempt to soothe him. "Lad, what you say may be the truth, but it doesn't dispel the ghosts I face every day. Even with the success of the Titan Foundry affair that occurred later on and which led to a certain amount of personal salvation and restored a considerable amount of my faith, I was never the same again; from then on I was often gripped with intense anxiety and fear. I would be prey to overwhelming depression and could do nothing more than sit on the edge of my bed and stare at the wall for hours. Finally I saw a doctor and was prescribed a variety of medications to wrestle my brain chemistry back to some sense of normalcy." Carpenter tried to speak lightly but a definite tinge of bitterness edged his voice.
"Father, if I may speak plainly --"
"Go ahead, lad. Let's hear it."
"Father, you seem to be ashamed that you have to take medication for your problems. What's wrong with that? If you were trying to heal an inflamed kidney you wouldn't hesitate to take a prescribed medicine. What difference does it make if the affected part is your kidney or your brain? I think your doing the right thing; a lot of people would deny they had a problem and try to go on without medication and who knows where that could lead?"
Carpenter smiled again at the young man's intensity. "Quite the psychologist, aren't you?" he spoke softly. "Sounds like you might have experienced something like this yourself."
Terence looked down at his half-eaten breakfast again. "My brother had a severe anxiety disorder. He ignored the medication that was assigned him though and preferred to drink his fears away. After three years of 'self-medication' he died of liver disease. I can appreciate the necessity of following a doctor's orders," he said with some bitterness, quickly eating the remainder of his breakfast gruel.
"I'm sorry, Terence. I don't take advice anywhere near as well as I give it. I am a little ashamed at having to take medication to 'feel' normal. I was brought up on fairly old-fashioned ideals and it's hard to put them away and see real sense. If it means anything to you, I do follow my prescriptions and I don't have any intention of breaking off the medication." Carpenter gulped the last of his coffee.
"I'm sorry as well, Father. It's not my place to issue suggestions on how to run your life. Forgive me." Terence looked up, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
"That's fine, Terence. I certainly appreciate your concern. I know that I'm feeling a fair amount of anxiety right now."
"I know I'm anxious; I'm kind of glad I'm not alone." Terence finally smiled.
"You're never alone, lad." Carpenter firmly patted the boy's shoulder. "Get me another coffee when you get up, will you? Thanks very much."
The sky was still black when at last the transport train rumbled to a halt at Vostok Station. The towers and small buildings that formed it huddled together within a brave but cheerless circle of its own illumination. A small group of figures embarked from the main building and waved towards the crew of the tractor in welcome. The figures, already dusted with frost and breath billowing with condensation, were brought aboard and bottles of vodka saved for this occasion were opened and poured. Carpenter smiled at the simple conviviality while a small but vicious part of him cursed them for their easy access to the drug he vowed never to partake of again. He buttoned his coat for the short but bitter trip to the Vostok command hut. He and Terence climbed down the ice-slick ladder of the tractor and trudged through the wind-packed snow to the weathered, snow-covered cabin. Around them, a tall tower stood, guy-wires tensing and relaxing, swaying slightly in the wind while meteorological instruments whirled and spun crazily. The door opened and he and Terence stepped inside.
After closing the outer door, Carpenter opened the air-lock inner door. Inside, the room was a collection of army surplus desks, dented filing cabinets, high-end computer equipment, tattered charts on the walls and tottering piles of maps and documents. A small group of people watched them silently for a moment and then one of them moved forward in greeting.
"Good evening, Father Carpenter and Brother Terence. It is good to finally meet you both." The woman's voice seemed young and vivacious yet her face reflected years of Antarctic labour and hardship. Her face was lined and tanned from exposure but her short fluffed blonde hair and luminous blue eyes shone with an irrepressible youth as she smiled at the two men.
"I'm Dr. Tania Rudenko, leader of this group of frozen scientists." The men and women around them all smiled and laughed with easy humour; not the expected mood of people essentially imprisoned at the South Pole for years on end. Terence smiled as well.
Rudenko laughed, a sweet sound in the deep freeze of Antarctica. "You seem surprised, young man."
Terence blushed slightly. "I wasn't expecting -- I mean, I didn't know that there would be any women here."
A burly Russian with a bristling beard laughed. "There are women here? Where, tovarisch?"
The young man blushed further. Carpenter smiled at the boy's discomfiture.
"Tania, we're going to need you to help set up a perimeter of arc lamps around the target area. We'll begin assembly of the drilling unit as soon as we have some illumination. The submersible crew will arrive with the next transport plane, if the weather holds out, in about forty hours."
Rudenko smiled and shook her head."You are sure a take-charge guy, Carpenter."
Carpenter looked up at her from his notes and his own face reddened. "I'm sorry Tania. It's a habit I've developed. What I meant to say is that we would appreciate your help in putting up an arc lamp perimeter."
The Russian woman laughed again. "Of course. We're always ready to help out a friend; but first, vodka. It's the end of our workday here and our people need some rest and relaxation. Tomorrow morning we set up the perimeter and clear off the aircraft runway."
Carpenter nodded, willing to wait a little while longer.
She reached into the top drawer of a particularly battered file drawer and withdrew a full bottle of Russia's favourite stress reliever.
Carpenter smiled uneasily, removing his thick gloves and unbuttoning the neck of his fur jacket. "Thanks Tania, but coffee for me."
Rudenko stared in disbelief. "No vodka? How will you stay sane here?" Unlike the grizzled Cossack that gratefully sucked the neck of the bottle noisily, she poured a liberal jot into a chipped Mirny souvenir mug.
"I have to keep my head clear for what happens tomorrow," was all Carpenter said as he hung up his jacket and turned to the battered coffeepot.
Terence watched him and his face creased in sympathy.
Carpenter cornered Rudenko an hour later and spoke in undertones as the group of people in the small hut continued to drink, laugh and one by one, shuffle off to sleep.
"So, Carpenter, you feel relaxed now?" Rudenko looked red-eyed and sleepy but Carpenter could see the hard resilience of a true commander in the arch of her eyebrow and the sharp points of her pupils. He smiled.
"Tania, I'm confirming your country's orders that you accompany us aboard the submersible Lazarus when the crew fly in. Here are your papers, signed by President Putin and Science Minister Fursenko and countersigned by John-Paul II and stamped with the Vatican Imprimatur Seal." Carpenter slipped a clean white, gold-trimmed folder out of his case and laid it before Rudenko, who immediately laid a fresh vodka-ring on its surface after setting her cup down and facing Carpenter anew.
"Is all this paperwork so necessary, Carpenter?" Rudenko inhaled a streamer of acrid smoke.
"Your government thinks so. They think it's so important that after you sign this, the plane arriving with the submersible crew will immediately take this document directly to Moscow. I think they're keen on capitalizing on whatever we may find down there."
Rudenko sipped her mug. "And what do you think that might be?" Her brow furrowed.
"Tania, what I think may be down there won't be of any interest to any stock exchange or bank. If I were you, I'd borrow Brother Terence's notes, give them a good read and get an idea of where we will be heading."
"Notes. Paperwork. Why can't you just tell me? I have enough crap to read here all day. Why are the submersible crew only arriving now?" Rudenko mashed out the cigarette in an ash-filled jar lid.
"They've been training off the coast of Mirny in an identical sub during our lengthy trudge aboard the transport train. When the Lazarus is in position, ready to drill down into the ice, our crew will be ready and you and I will be ready to finally get to the bottom, so to speak, of this mystery."
Rudenko didn't look impressed with all this technical gimcrackery. "So, are you going to brief me on this mission or not?"
Carpenter grinned and clapped Terence soundly on the shoulder. "Terence here will tell you everything you need to know about our little adventure."
Terence's eyes widened with a snap and Rudenko looked at him with a mildly predatory air as she lit another cigarette.
Carpenter awoke in darkness, in his bunk aboard the now silent transport train. No, not entirely silent; a low grumble could be heard deep within the bowels of the vehicle. A diesel fuel generator operating to maintain electrical power and more importantly, heating within the crew compartments. Carpenter lay awake, enjoying the moment of relaxation. He had slept well again, as he always did when troubled, and he felt warm and comfortable as he stared out of the frost-crusted window into the Antarctic dark. He thought for a moment and realized that of all the ambitions and desires of man, being warm and comfortable was the most truly satisfying sensation and one that too few people appreciated. Here in the middle of the most inhospitable place on God's Earth, what more could a man ask for?
He drowsed off for another twenty minutes and then, fully awake, felt ready to take on the day's business. He doffed his long underwear and stepped into the tiny but practical washroom that adjoined his quarters and turned on the shower. The lime-encrusted knob squeaked, the pipes vibrated and a blast of steaming hot water sprayed forth from the nozzle and Carpenter, pulling the plastic curtain closed, thanked God in Heaven for little luxuries. He smiled and he found himself humming; something he hadn't done for a long time.
Terence awoke in a cold sweat, still reeling from another nightmare and lay still, gasping for breath as he slowly remembered where he was. He closed his eyes as he tried to relax and recover from the slowly ebbing terror; again the dream of the shapeless, nameless horrors, the unimaginably frigid cold and Father Carpenter abandoning him. Terence grimaced with the memory and tried to pray for peace of mind. He quietly meditated and after half an hour, felt fit to get up and dressed. He hoped that he was not keeping Father Carpenter waiting too long.
He entered the mess area and found Carpenter sitting at one of the benches sipping coffee. He quickly went past the service counter, filling a battered mug with coffee and an equally dented plate with steaming oatmeal and sat opposite Carpenter.
Fearing a scolding for his tardiness, Terence tried to appear enthusiastic. "Good morning, Father. I hope you slept well."
Carpenter smiled and sipped coffee. "Morning, Terence. I slept fine. How about you?"
Terence frowned slightly but tried to maintain a smile. "Fairly well, Father. I've been having some bad dreams, though."
Carpenter nodded. "I'm hardly surprised, boy. If there was ever a cursed place on Earth, this is it. I'm looking forward to completing our task and getting out of here as soon as possible."
Terence nodded, inwardly wincing as he remembered his dream of abandonment. He spooned his porridge listlessly as Carpenter spoke.
You know what today's procedure is about; when the light perimeter is set up, we unload the Lazarus and let it do its work drilling down to liquid water; I'm glad we can finally get to work." Carpenter rubbed his hands together.
Terence finished his breakfast and the two suited up in their heaviest furs in preparation for an extended stay outside in the fierce Antarctic night.
Carpenter and his crew helped the Vostok personnel with the set-up of the big arc lights, running cold-resistant cables to massive fuse-boxes on the side of the power generator car of the transport train. The big diesel generator thrummed and vibrated, smoke and steam venting from corroded exhaust pipes as the circle of lamps flared into sodium-yellow brilliance. Carpenter went back and forth between the transport train's command tractor to Vostok's main centre, keeping communications open and clear as the preparation process continued. Hours passed, many of them standing alongside and inspecting various pieces of support machinery, stamping his feet and cursing the unforgiving cold.
The process of unloading the Lazarus and manoeuvring it into position was time consuming and exacting, made more difficult in the terrible cold and the dark. Carpenter oversaw the operation and counted on the skill of the transport train captain and his crew to perform this delicate task.
As this took place, a dim light appeared in the sky and Carpenter realized the submersible crew had arrived. Dark figures scrambled onto the cleared-off landing strip, struck and activated emergency flares and proceeded to lay them along the runway boundary. Carpenter grew nervous as he watched the big Russian Tupolev transport plane sway and yaw with the wind into landing position. Carpenter wouldn't relax until that crew was safely on the ground; after all this effort, it would be a major disaster to lose his prime crew.
Meanwhile, the crew of the transport train deftly disengaged a large, streamlined object from one of the train's cargo units and carefully slid it into position at a marked spot on the wind-swept ice. The word Lazarus was stencilled in bold, black type onto the bow of the yellow, rounded, torpedo-like shape resting upon a set of massive skids that were carefully fastened into place with long pitons fired into the rock-hard surface ice. The whole scene was eerie and futuristic within the spread of the actinic light of the circle of arc lamps. Small tracked vehicles sped around back and forth between the train command car and the huddled figures standing near the bulbous machine that waited for its orders to go forth. Streamers of vapour issued from each of the heavily coated figures as they finalized their calculations and began a quiet countdown.
The even dozen men and women that comprised the Lazarus' crew trudged out of the yawning rear door of the enormous plane's underbelly and seeing Carpenter's waving arm, made their way to where he stood.
"Good to see you, James; good to see all of you again." Carpenter smiled and shook their hands in turn. "How were the training runs at Mirny?"
James Martens, tall and Norwegian looking with light blond hair that the wind was whipping about his head, laughed lightly and tossed away the half-smoked cigarette he had been nursing. "Bloody awful. The weather's always bad and the currents under the surface made controlling the boat a bitch and a half."
Carpenter smiled again at the young man's attitude. "Let's get indoors and you can give me the details. We're actually ahead of schedule here; we should be ready to leave in about twelve hours." The words were lost in the snowy winds as the group followed Carpenter back to the main building and some welcome warmth.
Carpenter stepped into the main building's control room and greeted the various crew working at their desks, computers and maps. A short, chubby, bespectacled man with a mane of ash blond beard and hair evoking images of Thor or Siegfried leaned against the back of one crewman's seat, looming behind as they both studied and discussed the readouts on the computer screen before them, speaking Russian with quick bursts of laughter punctuating the interchange. Carpenter smiled and shook his head as he approached.
"Carpenter! Bladoslovenni Svyatoi Piotre! Nicolas Carpenter! Finally you come to say hello. How are you, friend?" The man, whose head barely reached Carpenter's shoulder, nevertheless hugged him with the grip of a giant.
"Hello, Marko. It's good to see you again." He returned the hug with such strength as he could muster and sat down on an available chair. The man clapped Carpenter on the shoulder one more time.
Marko Rostavili sat down again, crossing his arms and looking at Carpenter with open friendship. He wore a faded green turtleneck sweater with shapeless black trousers and Eastern-European knockoff Nike track shoes. He seemed youngish at first glance with his quick energy and rapid talk but the grey in his beard and the lines on his face bespoke difficult years bravely endured.
"Bolshoi brat. My big brother; it is going to be like old times back in Baikonur. How did you call it; the Padayuchi Zvyezda Svoistvenni, the Falling Star Affair." The man laughed again as Carpenter smiled with some wistful nostalgia.
"We drained a lot of bottles on that case, but we got the job done," Carpenter said as he remembered the case, one of his earlier ones, when he strode with confidence into every challenge and never doubted his ability or his righteousness. The years had done a good job stripping away those pretensions, Carpenter thought. Now he proceeded as though through a densely packed minefield. He felt some personal disgust with that thought and shook the memories away.
"Marko. I'm sorry I couldn't see you sooner but we really needed to get going on all the preliminary stuff before I could take a break and find you."
"Not to worry, tovarisch. There are important things to be done here; no time for partiya."
"Is the control room ready here?" Carpenter asked.
"Da, da. Control room is ready when you are ready." The perpetually smiling man offered enthusiastic thumbs up. "We will watch over you well."
The crew took a final look at the comparatively comforting lights of the Vostok complex and silently walked single-file to a solid looking metal stairway that was butted up against the sleek gold oblong and proceeded to climb up and onto its top deck. At the push of a concealed button, a hatch opened up and the group stepped down into the belly of the vehicle; vapour rose from the opening. After the last figure disappeared into the opening, the hatch slowly closed and locked.
"We're all set over here," one of the figures spoke into a small radio device. The set crackled with a quick reply; "Counting down to full power; at your mark."
Inside, the radio-operator looked at Carpenter, who nodded."Mark," the man spoke into the microphone.
The large mechanism began to hum with surging power and the carriage that cradled it started to tilt, massive gears turning and meshing, aiming the blunt snout of the device at the solid, implacable surface of ancient, steel-hard ice. The nose of the vehicle started to glow with tremendous heat, flakes of snow hissing into wisps of steam as they touched the brazen metal.
"Countdown is commencing as planned; thirty-five seconds to ice contact. All systems are go, Father."
Carpenter nodded again as he stared at the steaming, hissing thermal-drilling unit as it prepared to bore into the depths of million-year-old ice to whatever lay below it.
"Proceed with the operation, James. Let's dive."
Terence looked at Carpenter's face as the massive machine began to lower itself to the ice surface. Carpenter was smiling a fierce smile unlike any he had ever seen on his mentor's face before this. It inspired him; it worried him.
The now white-hot nose of the drilling machine touched the immovable ice sheet and a hissing, streaming column of steam erupted with the contact. An infernal wailing scream pierced the ears of the surrounding Vostok crew and they backed off as the white billows of steam shrouded the drilling machine from view. Soon, a huge stream of gushing liquid water spouted from the cloud of steam to refreeze on the surface some thirty metres away. The men and women walked back to their compound and inspected their instruments.
Within the burrowing oblong, Carpenter and his crew sat, strapped into form-fitting chairs that gimballed to assume a sense of levelness. Each chair seemed surrounded by banks of illuminated read-outs and dials pertaining to its particular station. A low rumbling sound seeped in from the outside and a gentle tremor vibrated through the hull.
"Depth is now twenty meters and increasing. Angle of descent maintaining at forty-five degrees. Everything's going as planned so far, Father."
"Good. How is our GPS contact?"
"Excellent, Father. Global Positioning System is online and functioning."
"Keep an eye on our trajectory. Don't let us stray off-course." Carpenter seemed satisfied. He turned to face Terence on his left.
"Well, so far so good, to coin an old cliché. How do you feel, lad?"
"Pretty good, all told. It's nice to be actually doing something instead of just waiting around for it to happen."
Carpenter smiled. "Same here; too much waiting and not enough doing. Well, we will be into liquid water in about four hours. So in that time we can keep busy plotting our course and putting together plans A, B and C. Then we'll see what we'll see."
Terence swallowed with some difficulty. "Plans B and C?"
Carpenter smiled at the boy's obvious worry. "Don't look so concerned. I've even got a Plan D in my back pocket here that I wrote on an old napkin. We'll be fine." He smiled again, enjoying a little guilty pleasure at Terence's expense.
Carpenter looked to his right and observed Rudenko's face, side-lit by luminous red dials. She readjusted her seat straps, trying to get comfortable. He wondered how she would weather the upcoming voyage and his lips compressed. As if she could sense the doubt radiating off him, she turned to Carpenter with a mildly annoyed look on her face.
"What are you looking at, Carpenter? I'm not frightened, if that's what you are expecting." She shook a lock of curly hair away from her eyes and almost seemed to pout. "You and your people are spending a lot of money to come here and look around in this lake. Is it really about ruined cities or is there something else? Why is my country so eager to help you out with all that gold-trimmed, wax-sealed, loopy-handwriting stuff?" This came out as an insistent whisper.
Carpenter very nearly laughed out loud at her loopy-handwriting remark. He replied with all the stern import he could muster, "Tania, there will be details about this mission that I'll explain as best I can as we go; some details will be told you when you need to know them and some maybe not at all." Carpenter turned away from her questing eyes when he said those last few words. "I showed you the maps and sonar scans of the area and told you my theory of what we might find there. Beyond that, there isn't much else; you're just going to have to be patient and find out when we do."
Rudenko frowned, which was alarming in such an otherwise handsome face. "So we get into the lake, tootle about in this expensive toy boat and when we find the lost city, take pictures and go home?"
Carpenter wished it could have been so simple. "That's pretty much the idea, Tania. Look, if you want to go over the maps again --"
"Nyet! Durakglupost! Forget it. I don't want to spoil all the surprise." She turned away and folded her arms like a pouting little girl.
Carpenter smiled a little. He liked Tania Rudenko; he hoped she would live through this mission.
The four hours dragged on, the submersible still angled sharply downward as the superheated nose cone furiously melted the obstructing ice in its path. Carpenter tapped Martens' shoulder ahead of him and whispered some directives to which the man nodded. Terence noticed and voiced his curiosity.
"Everything OK, Father?"
"Just making sure the pump lines are flowing freely." Carpenter spoke a little more loudly as he noticed Rudenko's interest piqued. "All of the water resulting from our melting prow is pumped through hoses we are trailing behind us back up to the surface, where it is sprayed far away from the borehole. We need to keep that hole open and free for our return."
Rudenko nodded. "Have you thought about the tremendous pressure there will be when we penetrate through to the water below? The full weight of two miles of solid ice will be bearing down on that water. When you poke a hole in it, that water is going to want to go somewhere. I can't believe I haven't thought of this until now." Rudenko sounded truly alarmed. "I was so upset at having to go along on this cruise that I completely forgot about the pressure."
Carpenter took her hand and squeezed comfortingly. "There's nothing to worry about Tania. All of that has been looked after. There's no reason why you should have thought of the pressure problem; you never dreamed that you would ever be in a position for it to affect you. This is the plan; we slow down the drilling when we are about ten meters from the ice boundary and then stop. We then allow water to build up and freeze behind us to form a plug. When it is thick enough to take the pressure, we finish drilling downward and enter the waters of Lake Vostok. Very neat and tidy. We jettison the drilling prow and we proceed to our destination."
Rudenko's face very nearly scowled with distrust. "You sound pretty sure of yourself. I hope The Fates decide to go along with your plan. What about getting out again? How does that story go?"
Carpenter smiled, he hoped, enigmatically. "Oh, I don't want to give away all the good bits. I think I'll wait awhile before I pull out that particular rabbit."
Rudenko frowned. "What are you talking about, rabbits?"
Terence grinned in spite of himself.
"Just a western figure of speech, Tania."
Her mouth opened to start an argument when the pilot's voice spoke up from ahead of them.
"Father, we are approaching the ice matrix boundary."
Carpenter leaned forward to see Martens' screen. "Good. Proceed with sealing operation." Carpenter's face lost its smile and he was grimly businesslike. "When the plug is at optimum thickness and thoroughly frozen, renew the drilling. Prepare the ship for submersion. Pressure check all hatch seals and view port gaskets."
"Aye, Father." Suddenly the previous comparative silence was replaced with raised voices and the clicking and snapping of switches for nearly ten minutes. Rudenko and Terence caught each other's eye for a second and they both wore the same worried expression. The pilot spoke to Carpenter once more, "Ice plug is at optimum thickness and solid, Father."
Carpenter paused for a moment and then spoke,"Resume drilling. All hands, brace for dive."
He tugged at his restraining straps, tightening them even though he had already done so several times. The vessel lurched and Rudenko grasped the armrests of her chair tighter than she intended. Terence closed his eyes and his mouth moved in silent prayer.
"We're about to breach the ice boundary, Father. Stand by for dive," Martens spoke over his shoulder as he adjusted his controls carefully.
The last of the ice matrix dissolved before the white-hot drilling unit and the fresh, frigid water of the lake surged into the resulting cavity, pounding and hammering the hull of the sub. The sound of the vessel slamming into the walls of its tunnel sounded like the booming of a titan gong as the crew held on. Then, as quickly as the tumult began, there was silence, broken only by the murmured questions and answers between the pilot and his crew.
"All seals intact, Father. We are now submerged. Outside pressure 2.5 tons per square inch. Preparing to jettison drilling prow."
Carpenter winced as he felt for bruises, looking instinctively upwards as he heard the low groaning that spoke of incredible pressure bearing down on the hull. "Take us down ten more meters before you do; we want to make sure we're clear of the tunnel mouth."
"Aye, Father. Vessel is secure. Hull integrity intact. No damage to report."
The pilot's thumb riffled a vertical row of toggle switches on a control panel before him, green lights turning red as he did so and the ship pitched slightly as the drilling rig separated from the bow of the sub with a muffled clank and thump. The cone, trailing the severed ends of hoses, sank swiftly and with a swirl of bubbles, vanished into the inky blackness of Lake Vostok.
"Aren't we going to need that again to get out?" Rudenko tried not to sound too concerned.
"Don't worry; we have a means to get out again." As he spoke the deck of the ship levelled out and the chairs righted themselves accordingly. Carpenter undid his restraining belts and stood up stiffly. He stretched and moved forward to the pilot's position and issued more instructions.
"Extending conning tower and diving planes." The sounds of motorized components vibrated through the ship as machinery moved and transformed the brutish bullet of a vessel into something more elegant and graceful.
"Diving array operational, Father. Now opening forward observation dome."
Carpenter grinned to himself as he moved to the foredeck and seated himself in the centre chair of a group of three set in a triangle, two in front, one behind. What looked like a large elliptical metal camera aperture slowly opened up to reveal a thick transparent plastic dome.
"Hitting lights now," Martens informed them.
The opening yawned to its maximum dilation and beams of blue-tinged white light streamed out before the vessel to vanish into the murky depths ahead.
Carpenter looked slightly disappointed. "I guess I was expecting more drama," he smiled then and swivelled his chair around. "How is our GPS contact?"
"Still very strong, Father. Shall I inform the surface team of our progress?"
"Yes, please; actually, let me speak to them." Carpenter slipped a compact radio headset into position on his head and activated it.
"Marko, we're through the ice and afloat; ready to proceed. How are things up there?"
Carpenter heard a few spits of static and the Russian's voice came through nearly two miles above their position.
"Oodvitellni! Wonderful. It should be smooth boating now. Talk to you again soon."
"Will do, Marko. Thanks." Carpenter turned back towards the view port.
Marko Rostavili stopped smiling as soon as radio contact was broken. Only he, besides Carpenter, knew what they might be facing down in those indescribable depths and what measures were being prepared to deal with it. Rostavili took the microphone again and sounded a message throughout the Vostok compound.
"All personnel are to board the airplane immediately. That includes all tractor crews. I say again, all personnel are to evacuate the compound immediately and board the plane." He put down the mike and stared into his instruments and waited, smoking a hand rolled cigarette.
"Do the right thing, Nicolas."
"All right, James. Take us down. Let's see what we came here to see."
The deep sound of electrical motors turning began to send a tremor through the ship and the ping of sonar started in the control room as they now began to navigate this totally unknown body of water.
"Current depth, 30 metres from lake surface. Outside temperature minus three degrees Celsius; that's nearly tropical compared to the surface. All stations, prepare to dive."
The boat began to angle downward, Martens quietly reporting the depth readings. The rest of the crew sat at their stations, intently studying their instruments and occasionally reporting to Martens via headset radios. In the background, quiet voices could be heard as the crew operated as smoothly as the intricate machine they were controlling.
"Current depth, 300 metres; steady as she goes," Martens announced.
"It's kind of a shame," Terence said softly.
Rudenko turned to him. "What's the matter?"
"The lake seems sterile, dead."
"Well, that was one of the theories that were put forth. There may still be microbial life down here; hopefully, we can get some water samples before we leave."
A great black shape silently streamed by across their field of vision. Rudenko and Terence's faces froze in wide-eyed horror as they yelped out loud.
"Did you see that?" Terence managed to whisper out.
"Yes," Carpenter answered." James, do you have any sonar contacts?"
"None, Father. The screen is clear."
Terence gaped again. "There it is again." Farther in front of the sub they watched as a transparent, wraith-like entity flowed from one lamp beam to another. By now all hands were straining to get a look at the creature.
"Is that some kind of fish?" Terence whispered.
Rudenko shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe it's a type of jellyfish."
Carpenter frowned at the apparition. "James, turn off all the lights for a moment."
Martens nodded and did so. Suddenly the interior and exterior were immersed in total blackness. As their eyes became accustomed to the dark they could make out dancing of multiple points of light. Small greenish-yellow sparks and neon blue stripes that fashioned the outline of the creature as it swam before them. It looked vaguely bat-like but its playful movements gave it a benign aspect.
"I thought so," Carpenter said. "Bio-luminescence."
Rudenko's voice sounded enraptured. "Prekpasni! What a wonder. If only we could take some pictures."
"We are; the sub's outfitted with still and motion picture cameras. We're getting some good images."
"It's too bad we don't have a marine biologist aboard to take advantage of this," Rudenko bemoaned.
"Biology isn't the reason we're here, Tania. Lights on, James," Carpenter replied dryly.
Rudenko shot him a nasty look in return.
Martens turned towards Carpenter, his expression questioning. "Father, we have a ways to travel before we get to the target area. We could have started drilling on the surface a lot closer than Vostok base."
"I know James, but the crew of the transport train didn't want to take any chances diverting off their regular route. With no alternative to hitch a ride with, we had to make do. There were a few other reasons I won't get into right now."
Carpenter continued to stare through the port, watching the spectre-like shapes of the mysterious life-forms twitch and writhe past.
Carpenter turned suddenly and rubbed his hands together. "Say, we should eat. It's been ages since breakfast. What have we got to eat in this tub, James?"
Martens smiled and rose from his chair, stepping across the deck to the other side; he opened a rubber-sealed metal cabinet.
"This boat wasn't designed with a galley of any kind; it's not meant to be submerged long enough to need one, so we've been supplied with packaged or instant foods." He rummaged around and after some prospecting announced his find. "We have MREs; that's meal; ready to eat for you non-military types, instant soup, sandwiches, dried fruit, chocolate bars and crackers. There's also a jar of tea and instant coffee."
"Sounds great. Lets get to it. Would someone put a kettle on to boil, please?"
With that, they relaxed and prepared their dinner, the homely sound of a steaming kettle and crinkling food wrappers gently filling the air. Eating around a narrow oval table in a chamber behind the control room, they spoke and laughed, spoons clinking in coffee mugs, the alienness of their position forgotten for the moment. Up front, Martens, having eaten first and now nursing a steaming mug of tea as he kept watch at his station.
Gradually, the crew resumed their positions as they finished their meals with Carpenter, Terence and Rudenko taking their seats last.
Carpenter turned towards Martens. "Anything to report, James?"
Martens smiled and shook his head. "Nothing but our wraithlike friends out there and no sonar contacts. We're on course and will reach target area in about two hours."
"Well enough. Thank you, James." Carpenter turned to face the view port.
Silence fell upon the people within the vessel as some busied themselves at their workstations or communicated with each other during the regular operating of the ship.
An hour passed without incident.
Martens stood and walked towards the rear room to refill his mug. He was halfway there when a warning beep sounded at his station. He quickly retraced his steps and scanned his instruments.
"We have a sonar contact." He hunched over the glowing green circle that flashed the proof of the warning.
Carpenter rose and joined Martens. "What have you got?" Carpenter stared intently at the blinking dot that appeared on the outer perimeter of the screen.
"It's massive, whatever it is -- wait. There's another." The two men watched as another blip edged onto the sonar indicator. Martens' fingers manipulated controls and numbers scrolled by on an illuminated panel.
"Here's another." One by one, additional blips joined the others until seven blinking dots imposed their presence on the screen.
"They're following us," Martens said softly as a visible pursuit pattern revealed itself.
"They seem to be keeping their distance, though," Carpenter observed, as several minutes ticked by silently. "That suggests some purpose."
Martens turned his head towards Carpenter. "You think there's some intelligence behind them?" His expression was puzzled.
"It's a guess so far. Keep tracking them; if they get too curious, initiate evasive action. There's not much more we can do until we reach the target area. Then, we'll see what happens."
Carpenter returned to his chair while Martens' brow furrowed at Carpenter's remark.
Carpenter spoke again, "James, take us down to 600 metres; it's time to find what we came here for."
The Lazarus languidly dove through the abyssal dark, its searchlights cutting probing swaths through the icy water, the translucent wraiths drifting past unconcerned.
Carpenter walked towards the workstation of a stout but full-figured young woman with short red hair and stylish glasses. She looked up from studying her instruments and greeted him.
"I knew you'd be getting around to my station eventually," she smiled.
Carpenter leaned over her panel and smiled in return. "Dr. Brenda Totleben, it's always a pleasure. Anything on your screens yet?"
"Nothing yet, Father. This topographical sonar array is sensitive and pretty reliable. I got very accurate readings training off the coast of Mirny. When there's something to sense, this instrument will sense it. I'll let you know when anything presents itself."
"I'm just getting a little jumpy now that we're so close." He stood erect and turned towards Martens. "Any change in our nosy friends?"
Martens shook his head. "Still maintaining their distance. No change."
Carpenter scratched his beard, eyes narrowing in thought as he made his way back to his seat, when a telltale beep from Totleben's station froze him in mid-stride.
"I've got something, Father. A pattern is starting to show through the usual silt layers. Let me get a tighter beam to bear." Carpenter was now hunched over Totleben's instrument panel, trying to make sense of the shimmering abstract that was showing on her screen. Some deft manipulations of various knobs and levers and the image coalesced into regular shapes, squares, rectangles and more.
Totleben faced Carpenter with a flash of a smile. "Could be artificial structures; let me continue scanning and I'll confirm it for you."
Carpenter grinned and squeezed her shoulder. "Thank you, Brenda. You're a wonder."
"I know, Father. Nice to hear it from you, though."
The serious young woman concentrated on her instruments and as time passed, the formations on the lake floor beneath them began to reveal themselves and hint at the answers to dark secrets.
"Commence mapping maneuvers; James, let Brenda guide your course."
"Aye, Father." Totleben smiled at this temporary bestowing of power.
The next hour was spent guiding the sub through a grid course, cameras snapping pictures and computers assembling a composite whole from the fragmentary information that streamed in.
Rudenko watched Carpenter walk from Totleben's station to Martens's station and back again and then spoke to Terence in a hushed voice. "Ruins of a city at the bottom of an Antarctic lake. Neveroyatni! Who could believe such things? I wish I had a cigarette!" She frowned again and looked spitefully at Carpenter's back. Terence tried to console her.
"Father Carpenter has been all over the world investigating things like this. A few weeks ago, I wouldn't have believed it either." She turned to aim her sharp glace at Terence. "Why is the church interested in this? Why not some big museum? The History Museum in Moscow could have arranged all this fancy stuff and probably cheaper."
Terence thought of a way to explain without revealing anything important. "The Vatican gets involved in these kind of archaeological projects so that no single country can stake a claim on the whole site. Trust me, every country will benefit from whatever is found here."
Terence added what he thought was a logical conclusion, "Look at it this way, Ms. Rudenko; if we do all the dirty work, your country doesn't have to. From what I've read about Vostok station, your country feels it's already spending more than it would like."
Rudenko shot Terence a dirty look. "My country is very happy with the work we are doing in Vostok and furthermore is very proud of our contribution to the sciences." Rudenko sniffed disdainfully but said no more on the subject. Terence considered apologizing but decided he had done enough damage to international relations for one day.
Carpenter paced around the semi-lit deck as the procedure continued.
"James, what's the position of our curious guests?"
Martens examined the main sonar screen. "No change in position, Father. They're still motionless at the far limit of our sonar.
Carpenter frowned at the news. "What are they waiting for?" he muttered. "Brenda, are we nearly finished with our scan?" Carpenter's voice sounded strained.
"Nearly done, Father. Come here and see; the basic overview conforms to the first surface radar images we saw a year ago. The city, for want of a better term, is circular in plan and roughly 40 miles in diameter. The ruins get more and more dense and clustered as you approach the centre and then, the middle of the town centre so to speak, is inexplicably empty of any structures at all. We'll soon have a thorough, 3D virtual map of the ruins; I can't wait to see some of those photos when they've been enhanced." A tone sounded and Totleben smiled at Carpenter. "All done, Father."
"Good work, Brenda." Carpenter nodded in satisfaction and turned to Martens.
"James, launch a sensor buoy; I want to know what lies above the surface of this lake at this point." Martens, used to Carpenter issuing instructions without explanation, operated a keyboard and pressed a green-lit button. A muffled thump and clang was felt through the hull and then silence.
"Based on our current depth, the probe should hit the ice ceiling in a few minutes." Martens checked an illuminated readout, watching the numbers spin out as the missile raced to the surface.
Carpenter walked back to his seat to wait; Terence and Rudenko looked meaningfully at him.
"What are you expecting?" Rudenko asked quietly.
Carpenter's face was a mask. "I have a suspicion that I hope won't be confirmed by the sensor's findings," he finally spoke.
Terence looked both puzzled and a little alarmed. Carpenter rarely spoke this cryptically unless there was a possibility of something being very wrong.
"It may be nothing. In fact, I really don't think --"
Martens broke in suddenly, "Father, the probe has surfaced and there seems to be a huge air-space between the water and the ice ceiling. The probe camera is on and getting images; take a look."
Carpenter strode towards Martens' station and viewed the probe's findings. A grainy picture formed on a small screen and as Martens panned the camera back and forth they could see what was obviously a vast ice cave whose roof was many meters above the water's surface.
"Air temperature minus five Celsius, air pressure two tons per square inch. I don't know where the light is coming from, but the source may be radioactive. I'm getting a reading of approximately 1500 microroentgens from the surrounding ice walls. That's higher than normal background radiation, which is about 10 to 12 microroentgens but not dangerous. That may be what's producing the light."
"Was this what you had suspected?" Rudenko whispered.
"Something like this, yes," Carpenter said without looking at her, still studying the fuzzy TV images with rapt attention. "All right, James. Let's have a more direct look. Everybody, strap yourselves in, we're heading for the surface."
Carpenter cinched his seat belt tight as the vessel moved, distant gurgling sounds and the vibration of motors sounded throughout the ship as it rose towards the mysterious surface above. He felt nervous, which was normal in a situation like this, but he also felt elated, as he always did when finally embarking upon a mystery.
"200 metres and climbing," Martens read out the depth as the numbers slowly changed.
"How about our lurking friends? Any movement?" Carpenter asked.
"They're rising as well but keeping their distance. I don't suppose anyone is surprised at that."
Martens looked sardonic. Carpenter laughed but Rudenko and Terence only swapped nervous looks.
"When we break surface, we'll take a look at what's to see from the conning tower and if the situation call for it, we'll go for a visit."
The submersible continued to climb, the water slowly growing brighter. Martens continued to read off the dwindling depth measurements. The inky blackness gave way to a dark green and then brightened to a pale aquamarine as the vessel broke surface. Carpenter unbuckled quickly and rose from his seat.
"All right. Let's go upstairs and take a look." Carpenter motioned to Terence to join him as he headed for a metal, spiral stairway that led to the upper deck and the conning tower. Carpenter's voice was heard as he disappeared from view, "James, keep and eye on our friends and let me know if they attempt to close in."
Carpenter reached the top of the stairs and then climbed a short metal ladder that led to a circular metal hatch that had a large wheel set in its middle. He grasped this wheel and with several rotations pushed the hatch upwards. He climbed up and through the opening with Terence not far behind. Climbing one more short ladder, Carpenter found himself in a small chamber that four large men would find uncomfortable. Set in the forward wall was a clear window made from transparent, pressure resistant plastic. Through this he saw what lay outside; water washing over the deck of the sub and a stretch of water that terminated in an icy shoreline. The shore was only the start of a vast ice cavern whose distance was lost in vapour and darkness. What was the most mystifying was the collection of massive blocks of ice or stone that was stacked and arranged on the shore of the sub-glacial lake.
"Amazing sight. What are your thoughts on those blocks on the shore?" Carpenter asked quietly.
Terence stared at the odd construction and swallowed. Father Carpenter rarely asked a question unless he already had his own answers.
"They look -- artificial, Father. Someone or something arranged them. What's more, something shaped them too."
"I think so too. We need a closer look. We need to go ashore."
Terence followed Carpenter back down the hatchway, cold sweat forming on his palms.
Carpenter strode into the control room with Terence not far behind.
"OK, everyone. We need to take some action and this is what I have in mind. Terence and I have to explore the shore area of the cavern we are in. I want Brenda to continue to refine the scans from the ruins below. James, I want you to monitor the position of our guests out there and keep in touch with me while I'm ashore."
"It's mighty inhospitable out there, Father," Martens said with an expression that plainly showed he disapproved of the plan.
"I know. Terence and I will have to use the hard-shell deep diving suits we brought along. Trust me, James; I have an idea of what I'm proposing."
Carpenter turned towards the rear of the ship and proceeded to the diving chamber, Terence dutifully following.
"Will the diving suits be operable on dry land?" Terence questioned.
"They're very lightweight. Not as flexible as I'd like but I think they'll be sufficient to allow us to survey the shoreline. I really want to get a closer look at those big blocks."
The two men climbed down a short ladder until they found themselves in a simple metal-walled chamber adorned with a row of multi-coloured diving suits on one side and the thick, imposing door of an airlock on the other. Two crewmen were there to prepare the airlock for use.
Carpenter tapped a button on a small wall plate by the doorway and spoke, "James, do you read me?"
A brief spark of static and Martens' voice sounded, "Aye, Father."
Carpenter nodded towards Terence who selected one of the suits and prepared to don it. Carpenter assisted by holding the bright blue suit steady while Terence opened up the shell-like panel on the back. This allowed the operator to slip into the suit from the back without the tedium of assembling the outfit section by section. When Terence was properly encapsulated, Carpenter swung the shell shut and locked its clasps.
"The suits were designed after the suits used on Russian space stations; much easier to get into and operate."
Carpenter selected a vibrant red suit and, with Terence's help, was similarly attired.
The two men practiced movements and walked a number of steps to test the suit's mobility and were soon satisfied that they would be able to attempt an exploratory trip outside. Lights blinked on inside the suit and power systems activated, each man examining his air supply and temperature controls until each raised a thumb in assurance that all was well.
Carpenter tested his radio system. "James, we're fully suited up and ready for EVA. Can you get us close enough to the edge of the ice to deploy the walkway?"
The suit radio crackled softly.
"I think I can manage that. Hang on."
Martens, guided by a remote camera image, gently manipulated the controls, slowly sidling up to the ice boundary until contact was made. He then pushed a button that fired two steel spears deep into the ice shelf that would hold the sub in position via thin cables. Finally, he deployed a collapsible metal bridge across the gap.
"All secure, Father. The walkway is in position and we are anchored."
"Good work, James. We'll contact you every five minutes and keep you informed as to what the situation is. One more thing; if those sonar contacts look like they're closing in, you are to leave at once. The ship and crew come first. Is that understood?"
There was a moment of uneasy silence.
"Aye, Father. Will do."
"All right. Let's get out there."
Carpenter and Terence entered the airlock and stood still as the door clanged shut behind them. A hissing sound, loud enough to be heard within their suits indicated the change in pressure. Slight taps and clicks sounded throughout each of their suits as the components braced against the incoming atmospheric stress. A red light then turned green and Carpenter's hand activated the outer hatch control. The thick door swung outwards and the two stepped out onto the deck. The blue luminescence around them cast an eerie ambience as swirls of white fog drifted in from the black water. They stood silently, taking in the alien nature of their surroundings and finally headed towards the waiting ramp.
"Terence, everything OK?"
Carpenter's radio crackled.
"Fine so far, Father. Where to first?"
"Let's check out those blocks. James, do you read me?"
Martens was quick to reply, "Loud and clear, Father. Images from your helmet cams coming in very sharp."
The two figures approached the stacks of monolithic cubes, and were soon dwarfed by their sheer size.
"These are a lot bigger than they seemed from the sub; nothing familiar next to them to give some sense of scale." Carpenter reached out to touch the sheer wall of the closest block. "It seems to be rock rather than ice. It's definitely been shaped; I can make out tool marks but am unable to determine what kind of tool. The size is staggering: these blocks must weigh at least a thousand tons each."
The two slowly circled the mass of stone monoliths, quietly discussing theories and making measurements.
"These blocks have definitely been arranged here; it's not a natural formation. That being said, it leads us to the uncomfortable question, 'who arranged them?'"
At that, Carpenter and Terence turned to look into the dark forbidding abyss that lay beyond the mysterious edifice.
"Terence, aim your Geiger counter into the tunnel. Any strange readings?"
Terence did as asked and raised the small blinking device. The random clicks and ticks that it had been emitting since they stepped outside suddenly increased to a regular ticking that lessened only when the device was lowered again.
"Definitely a radioactive source in there. What was the specific reading?"
"About twenty milliroentgens. A sizable increase from what we're being exposed to here, but still relatively safe."
Carpenter paused to think for a moment; Terence took the time to look into the waiting dark. There was a movement.
"Father, I saw something move down there! I'm sure of it."
Carpenter strained to see any trace of what Terence might have seen. After a minute he relaxed slightly. "Lad, I don't see anything. Can you describe it?"
"All I saw was a flash of green light. That's all." Terence was alarmed but worked to keep his voice steady.
Carpenter signalled to Martens, "James, did you get anything on Terence's helmet cam to corroborate what he says he saw?"
'Hold on a moment, Father. I'll review the recording of the last minute. Let's see." His voice trailed off for a moment as he studied the images. Then, there it was. A faint point of light deep in the tunnel that blurred and vanished in the space of a second.
"There was definitely something there, Father."
A chill settled into the crew as Martens spoke this news.
"Well, I still intend to venture into that tunnel and find the cause of that radioactivity. Are you still game?"
"Of course, Father. I'm OK."
"Right, let's get some light on the subject and get started."
The two men activated bright spotlights attached to their helmets and with careful steps headed into the dark. They circled around the mass of stone blocks and headed into the tunnel, their lights making white ovals that swept the floor ahead of them.
"James, are you still reading us?"
"Aye, Father. Picture and sound coming in strong," came the reply.
"Good. How is the radiation situation, Terence?"
"A slight rise; now reading thirty milliroentgens. No danger . . . yet."
The two men were soon deep in the tunnel, its entrance lost in the shadows.
"I think I see a light source ahead. Terence, turn off your lamps for a moment."
"OK, Father. There."
They stood in what seemed total darkness for a few minutes but as their eyes adjusted to the gloom, a faint blue light began to emanate from the space in from of them.
"I think we're entering another chamber with radioactive lighting. Turn on your lamps, Terence. We'll still need them until we reach the source of the radiation."
The two continued on their way through the ice-tunnel until a great chamber yawned ahead of them. They finally halted, taking in the scale of the vast cavity.
"Think we can dispense with the lights now, Terence. The ambient light from the walls and ceiling seems quite bright enough."
Terence obeyed and they were washed in a deep blue illumination. The chamber was so large that it was impossible to see the roof above them, nor the walls of the far end; both were lost in a white mist that drifted slowly around them.
"James, are you getting all this?"
There was a brief pause that made Carpenter unconsciously hold his breath until an answer came.
"Aye, Father. The cavern seems empty, at least nothing is showing up on any of our infrared or ultraviolet scans."
Carpenter strained his eyes as he looked into the distance ahead of them. "I think I see a slight bright spot in the distance. Terence, can you see it? Or are my eyes fooling me?"
"No, I see it too, Father. There is definitely a brighter area there."
"That's very strange, Father. It's not showing up on any of our screens. As far as we can see, there's nothing there."
"Hmm. We'll continue on with caution. There's not much more we can do."
They walked on, the blue light brightening until they had no further need for their lamps. With this increase in illumination came further mysteries. A large, black shape appeared to emerge from the solid ice on their left.
"Father, what is that?"
They veered away from their path to approach the anomaly, which began to assume a familiar shape as they drew closer.
"It's a submarine! A submarine locked in the ice," Terence spoke excitedly. "How is it possible?"
Carpenter turned on his lamp and examined the derelict vessel. It was twisted, crushed and rusted through but recognizable as a World War II German submarine. He shook his head in wonder.
"James, what do you make of it?" Carpenter approached carefully, making sure his helmet cam got a clear image.
""It's the strangest thing I've ever seen, Father," came the awed reply.
"Clearly you haven't been on many missions with me, James," Carpenter joked wryly. "It's been well documented that Nazi Germany was very interested in the occult and supernatural; before the war, they sent exploration teams all over the world looking for artifacts and objects of supposed supernatural power. It's said that they sent their own expedition to the South Pole city, but supposedly no one returned. Another legend says that several returned but were changed or mutated somehow and were quietly euthanized. As for how a German submarine got this far inland and this deep is completely beyond me but strangely, not totally surprising."
"So there is something to the whole 'Lost Ark' thing?" Terence managed a smile.
"There's always something to stories like that; only the Nazis were interested in more exotic religions. They represented an irresistible power to men like Hitler, if only he could get his hands on it. So they spared no expense on their various expeditions."
"But they never found anything, though?" Terence looked at Carpenter. "That's why they lost the war, right?"
"They did lose the war, but it was because of what they found," Carpenter said cryptically, looking again at the wrecked sub. "Anyway, let's get back to our own expedition."
The two turned away from the silent questions posed by the rusted hulk and resumed their exploration.
"The light is getting brighter still," Terence commented. "The radiation is increasing too. Up to fifty-five milliroentgens now. Still safe but --"
"But for how much longer? Don't worry, lad. If the trend continues, we'll go back. I've no interest in studying the effects of hard radiation on foolish old men. Just keep me informed."
The two men trudged onwards for another half hour, the light brightening and the fog clearing. Abruptly, they came to the edge of a cliff overlooking a mass of ruined buildings laid out in a series of concentric circles, the boundary of which was lost in the distant darkness of the cavern.
"Those ruins are in the same pattern as the ones at the bottom of the lake. There's even the same circular clearing in the centre," Terence observed, his voice tinged with excitement.
"I'm more interested in what's in the middle of that circle. Look at that." Carpenter's voice was also tinctured with the thrill of discovery.
In the centre of the clearing hovered a strange glowing shapeless mass, silent and eerie.
"I've seen that shape before but I can't place where. James, are you seeing this?"
Static crackled over their receivers.
"Just barely, Father. We're -kkkkhhhh- having a hard time with this frequency. If you -kkkkkhhhh- any deeper, we won't -kkkkkkkkhhh- to maintain contact."
Carpenter swore. "James, do what you can to boost the signal. We won't go any deeper anyway; there's a radiation hazard."
Terence held the Geiger counter towards the glowing mystery object. "Wow! Nearly off the scale."
"What's the reading?" Carpenter's voice was a gravelly whisper.
"My God. Six hundred Roentgens! If we stay here longer than four more hours, this exposure is fatal. We have to get out of here."
"Hang on for a second, will you? A few more minutes' exposure won't harm us and we have things to do before we leave."
The two lay on the edge of the cliff, observing the phenomenon. They were silent for a few moments.
Finally Carpenter spoke, "Think I know where I've seen this before."
"What is it?" Terence whispered, his hands trembling.
Carpenter looked on with narrowed eyes. "Have you ever heard of Harold Edgerton?"
"The photographer? High speed camera stuff; he took pictures of Nessie -- or says he did," came the hushed reply.
"Did you see his photo of the Trinity Atomic Detonation?"
"Yes, but what --"
"We're looking at the same thing." Carpenter's face held both terror and amazed fascination. "The arrested result of nuclear fission. Some unimaginable power has halted the explosion a millionth of a second into its course and held it frozen in time."
Terence gaped in momentary silence then spoke softly.
"Why would anyone or any thing do this? To what possible end?"
Carpenter looked around them warily. "I'm worried that we may well find out. Ever since I first saw Edgerton's photos of the Trinity blast, I always had a creepy feeling about the nature of those images. They weren't merely the images of the split-second release of tremendous energy, but something else."
Terence listened with rapt attention.
Carpenter continued, "There's a strange, other-worldly look about those images, like looking into another dimension: It's as though for a moment, the force of the nuclear fire punched a hole into another reality; not long enough for anything more than a peek through the opening. What we may be seeing right now is that hole being held open so something can come through."
"What do we do?" Terence felt foolish asking but couldn't help himself.
"I don't know," Carpenter whispered, "I never anticipated anything like this. It's a doorway for something; either coming or going and it's going to be bad whatever direction it goes."
"If that is indeed a frozen nuclear explosion --, " Terence hazarded a thought but Carpenter finished it for him.
"Maybe it can be un-frozen? A good idea if we can figure out how. Let's get back to the sub and see what we can figure out."
At that moment they were startled by a unearthly noise, half howl, half scream. They huddled beneath the protective bulk of the cliff edge and saw the source of the sound. The shining amorphous bulk of the frozen detonation began to vibrate, waves of power flashing forth from within. Light poured out of the opening as the vibrations increased. A bulge formed on one side of the bulbous object and then a huge mass, like that of a titan maggot the size of a bus, broke forth amidst a deluge of unspeakable black slime. Carpenter and Terence watched agape, unable to take their eyes off the hideous process. The vast blue-grey worm emerged fully from its source and fell to the slime-washed ground. There it writhed and squealed, gushing fluids and cilia bristling. When it seemed that the horror had reached its peak, three large, iridescent black shapes poured out of hidden tunnels and converged on the squealing worm. They were shapeless black monstrosities, speckled with glowing green eyes that opened and shut at random. They surrounded the thing and then began to carry it away, vanishing into the darkness leaving a ghastly slime trail.
It was several moments before either one could speak.
"Did you see that?" Terence asked with a definite tremor in his voice.
"Yes," was all Carpenter could muster.
"Damn!" Terence looked again at the glowing mass that had just disgorged a cosmic horror beyond all belief.
"It is a doorway," Carpenter finally admitted.
"What were those hideous black things?" Terence whispered.
"Don't you remember the Littlejohn Manuscript? Those were shoggoths."
"Are those what were following the sub all this time?"
Carpenter was visibly startled. "My God, yes. We have to get back and warn them."
"What are we going to do about that?" Terence gestured towards the ruins.
"Clearly we have to find a way to close that door. Whatever is coming into this world is being tended by the shoggoths. Who knows what lies beyond the darkness at the edge of those ruins? What was that gigantic worm? No, wait! Larva! It was a titanic larva taken away by the shoggoths to . . ." Carpenter found he didn't want to say what he was thinking. " A nursery! A place where they can be safe and cared for until they grow up into -- what?"
Terence watched Carpenter as he voiced his fears and he, too shivered.
"We have to get out of here. There's no time." Carpenter turned away from the icy horror.
"What are we going to do, Father?" Terence tried not to let his voice falter.
"We'll talk when we get back to the sub. If those shoggoths get bolder . . ." His voice trailed off, leaving Terence to imagine the worst.
The two quickly moved back and retraced their way to the water's edge, through the icy blue-hued tunnel that led to the subterranean lake.
They reached the stacked blocks and Terence's curiosity got the better of him.
"What are these blocks for? I wish I knew."
Carpenter smiled in spite of himself. "Here's a theory for you; the shoggoths built it, trying to make a city of their own."
"What makes you think so?"
"Well, again, you have to rely on the Littlejohn Manuscript again; the shoggoths are an artificial, slave race. They were used to build the massive cities of the Old Ones and were bred to obey commands. They had only a small amount of intelligence and were rather imitative. They wanted a city of their own." Carpenter was warming to a subject he knew well, but as they trudged around the 'city' to the shore there was a horrific shock.
The submarine was gone.
"Oh my God!" Terence gasped, "Where's the sub?"
"This is bad," Carpenter said darkly. "Look at the shoreline. The spots where the grappling darts held the boat close. They've been ripped out. They left in a hurry."
Carpenter looked around them, despair wanting to bubble up and consume him. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, fighting the panic that wanted to take over and scream.
"What do we do?" Terence asked in a shaky voice. "Is it time for plan B, Father?"
Carpenter laughed and tried not to let any hysteria enter his voice.
"Sorry lad. I was kidding; I never had a Plan B, C or D. I was pretty sure that Plan A was going to work."
Suddenly, a mountain of water exploded near the shore and the yellow bulk of the Lazarus rose amidst the spume.
"Don't count Plan A out yet, Father," a familiar voice sounded over their radios.
"James! Thank God! What happened?" Carpenter yelled.
"No time for that, Father. I'm extending the bridge; get across and into the airlock fast."
The sub drew alongside the icy shore and the two men struggled across the ramp and bolted for the welcoming haven of the airlock. The second they were through the doorway, the door slammed shut and the submersible, in a splash of frigid water, dove into the inky depths once more.
Carpenter sat heavily on a metal bench and let a crewman loosen and remove his helmet. Terence staggered from the airlock doorway and nearly fell to the floor as another man grabbed him. Carpenter's face was slick with perspiration and he looked haggard and old. Terence was covered with a similar sheen of sweat and breathed heavily as the crewmen opened the backs of the pressure suits and helped the two exhausted men out. Carpenter swore as the deck shifted below him and he nearly fell backwards.
"What's going on out there?"
As soon as Carpenter was free of the suit, he rushed to the control room with Terence not far behind. They entered the chamber to see Martens swiftly operating the controls and putting the ship through vigorous evasive manoeuvres.
"James, what's going on?"
He grasped a handhold just in time for the deck to dance beneath his feet. Terence held onto a railing for dear life.
"Sorry, Father. Our lurking friends decided to pay us a visit and I've been kept busy trying to stay out of their clutches. Any idea what they are?"
Martens cursed as he swung the boat around to avoid a hulking monstrous shape dotted with sinister green eyes.
"Shoggoths. Get us out of here, James. Any way you can."
Carpenter went back to his seat and strapped in. Rudenko looked at him silently with the look of someone who has seen far more than they wanted. She attempted a smile.
"Don't ever say I never take you anywhere, Tania."
She gaped at Carpenter's remark and then laughed a brief, shrill laugh that, although small, did vent some of the fear and shock of the last few hours. Terence smiled too, buckling in and realizing that he wasn't the same man who unbuckled this belt earlier that day; the things he's seen made sure of that.
"Hang on everyone. Bit of a sharp turn here." Martens' voice sounded strangely elated at this game of pursuit and as the sub banked sharply in a severe turn, he could be heard laughing. "Full speed ahead and I think we'll have left the beasties behind."
The sub's motors growled and rose in pitch as Martens applied maximum thrust. A shudder ran through the hull as they gained speed. Martens spared a moment to check the sonar screen.
"They're falling behind. We're out of danger." He smiled and shook his fist.
Carpenter breathed easier but reminded himself that that wasn't the case yet.
"Steady as she goes, James. Good work."
"Thanks, Father. That's what I'm here for." He smiled a lazy smile, welcoming the attention. "We tried to warn you that we were casting off because of the nasties out there but we had lost all contact by then. What did you end up finding down there anyway?"
Carpenter repressed a shudder and became evasive. "Something we'll have to deal with very soon. First, we have to get back to our point of entry and prepare to escape.
At full speed, the small sub was able to reach their point of entry very quickly, and it was at this point that Carpenter revealed his plan.
"This is what we're going to do, people. There is a potential catastrophe waiting to happen down here, but I can't go into details because, well, frankly I don't think you'd believe me." Carpenter tried to sound nonchalant but it was plain that he was afraid.
Totleben spoke up, "We're all in this together, Father. I think we're entitled to the truth."
Carpenter looked at her and damned himself for the truths he was about to reveal. "All right. You're all members of this crew and this expedition and deserve to know all the details but let me tell you, you won't be thanking me for it."
Carpenter then proceeded to explain the nature of their exploration and what they might have to face once they got there. He related the mystery of the German submarine and the final discovery of the radiation emitting anomaly and what squirmed forth in a paroxysm of unutterable birth throes. He also put forth his belief that a vast nursery might well be cloaked in the turgid blackness within the cavern's loathsome bowels. He then added the final note to the macabre story they were now acting out.
"I believe that the only way to un-freeze that nuclear explosion is by triggering it with another nuclear explosion."
Terence and Rudenko looked alarmed while Martens looked grim.
"Where do we get a nuclear device?" Terence managed to gasp.
"We already have one; it's sitting at the bottom of Lake Vostok. The ice-drilling unit was nuclear powered. The device was designed to detonate if necessary; it's just waiting for our signal to commence a countdown." Silence fell as he concluded his explanation. He moved to Martens' position and began the operation.
"This is really big. I had no idea that this was part of the plan," Terence whispered to Rudenko.
"This seems ridiculous; monsters and such. I've never heard such nonsense." Rudenko frowned again.
Terence grabbed her elbow. "Tania, I was there. I saw it happening. My God, I wish it was just nonsense. To know there are such things in the world. It really hasn't sunk in yet. Please, trust me if not Father Carpenter."
"Musor! This is the twenty-first century, Terence. How can such things exist? Next you'll be telling me you saw Baba Yaga and her chicken leg house," Rudenko argued but her reserve was frazzled at the edges; she'd already seen enough to unbalance her view of reality.
"Tania, why do you think there was all that paperwork with Putin's signature and the Pope's papal seal? Don't you see? Your country's president knows the facts. The Pope knows." Terence's eyes looked sad. "Carpenter knows. And he knows what has to be done."
Rudenko's face had the same expression it had when she was a little girl and was told that there was no Father Christmas and it was just mother and father putting presents in her stocking.
Carpenter spoke again, "Ok, everyone. Strap yourselves in; we're getting ready for the ride out of here."
Soon they were strapped into the tilting chairs ready for the upward angle that promised their ascent.
"Retracting conning tower and diving planes." Martens double checked these procedures and readied himself for the next step.
Rudenko looked nervous, as did Terence. Carpenter looked pensive but his lip curled into a wry smile.
"Ok, James. This one's for the whole pot. Prep two torpedoes to launch at my signal. Target the ice plug we made to seal off the entrance."
"Aye, Father. Targeting now." He adjusted delicate sighting mechanisms until he was satisfied. "Ready to fire," Martens spoke finally.
A moment of heavy silence fell as the seconds ticked by.
"Fire!" Carpenter commanded.
"Torpedo one away," Martens answered as he pressed a large red button with the heel of his hand. He pressed it again. "Torpedo two away." A distant clanking sound accompanied by the rush of water sounded as the two missiles sped towards their target. Martens looked at an illuminated digital timer and counted down the seconds to impact, his lips forming the unspoken words.
Two distant detonations were felt more than heard as the torpedoes reached their goal. The sub trembled as the double shock waves passed through the hull and Martens immediately checked his instruments. His smiling face suddenly fell.
"Negative, Father. The plug held."
Martens then turned in response to an additional beeping warning. Frowning, he inspected his panel for the cause. He saw what it was. The colour drained from his face.
"Father, those shoggoths are closing in."
"Evasive action! Now!" Carpenter barked.
The sub banked to the right and dove sharply as Martens increased speed. Carpenter and his crew strained against their harnesses as loose objects rattled back and forth across the metal floor. The groaning of stressed metal and the roaring of the sub's motors sounded above the rush of black water as the boat raced to escape the pursuing horrors.
"We're going to have to fight," Carpenter yelled out.
"We only have two torpedoes left, Father, and need them to break through the ice plug."
"I know. But we won't have the chance to break through unless those creatures are stopped. Load number three tube."
Carpenter knew that this was one of those times where the wrong decision would mean death. He prayed that he was making the right one now.
"Fire right into their midst; I'm hoping the shock wave will at least stun them long enough for us to get away."
Martens nodded grimly, maneuvering the sub into attack position.
"Fire when ready, James," Carpenter said at last.
Martens pressed the button with a palm greased with the sweat of fear. A muffled clank and a rush of bubbles sounded and then silence. Martens silently counted down to the missile's detonation.
"When you hear the explosion turn about and head for the ice plug. Load and arm the last torpedo when we're in position."
At that exact moment, a muffled boom was felt throughout the ship and Martens wrestled for control. The sub shook and rattled as Martens guided it back to the escape point.
"James, what does the sonar show? Are they still pursuing?" Carpenter's voice cracked.
"They're just sitting there in the water; they're not moving closer. There's only six; I think we blew one up," Martens informed him with a degree of satisfaction.
"Ok. Target the ice plug; stand by to fire," Carpenter ordered, sweat beading on his forehead.
The sub glided to a standstill and angled up towards the plug.
"Ready, James?" Carpenter asked, his voice hushed.
The missile noisily launched itself and they waited an eternity for the strike; it came and battered the ship once more. But now there was something different. The sound of rushing water grew louder and the sensation of violent movement gripped the crew.
"We're through! We're being sucked into the tunnel!" Martens cried out.
Outside, the tiny sub was being inexorably drawn towards a ragged hole in the ice ceiling, the vast pressure of two miles of solid ice ramming the vessel up the hole as the water escaped from its million year old prison. Inside the ship, the noise of the battered hull resounded as it bounced and rebounded from the walls of the tube.
Carpenter yelled out, not knowing if anyone heard, "We'll be clear of the tunnel in about five minutes."
Carpenter held onto the arms of his chair, grimacing from the buffeting and the unearthly noise. He looked forward and noticed that the front view port iris had been jarred open. He could see the walls of the tunnel rushing past in a blue-white blur. The outside lights were still on. Ahead, he could see a tiny point of light that he realized was the waiting outside world. God, how he wanted to stand on the open ground again. He stared at the point of light, mesmerized by the spectacle as the minutes crawled by. Then, faster than he could discern, the open sky yawned above and then a crash slammed through the body of the ship as it crashed down onto the surface. Outside, several Vostok crew members fell back startled as the sub slid across the ice, cradled in a gigantic air-filled pad.
As soon as the vessel stopped moving, the crew slashed the airbags supporting it, allowing it to settle to the ground, before they could tackle the sub's emergency exit doors.
Above, a titanic arc of rushing water gushed forth from the hole to fall a hundred yards away. In the distance, the huge Tupolev transport plane waited patiently, its engines idling smoothly and its rear-loading door invitingly open.
The hatches popped and the crewmen entered the sub, eventually helping the shaken aquanauts to their feet and outside to safety. The sky was black dark and the now deserted Vostok station looked forlorn and already forgotten. Marko Rostavili and his assistant were the last ones to leave the station control room and were among those who assisted the Lazarus' crew to the plane.
Totleben, limping from a sprained ankle, leaned on the shoulder of Martens as he helped her across the ice. Carpenter, grimacing from some internal injury, was helped by both Terence and Rudenko.
"Is everyone accounted for?" Carpenter shouted.
"Everyone is here, Nicolas," Rostavili answered. "Let's get aboard now. We are done here."
"Not entirely done," Carpenter said cryptically.
Suddenly, the roaring sound of the water arc changed in tone for a second and a huge black shape fell from it. It landed on the ice with a gelid splash and it immediately began to flow towards the beached sub. Evil green eyes glowed with a sinister purpose. Rostavili and Carpenter stood still as the monstrosity gathered momentum.
"Nicolas, what can we do?" Rostavili gasped, his eyes bulging in disbelief.
"We don't need to do anything, Marko. Just wait a moment." Carpenter smiled a grim smile.
The creature's pace faltered and suddenly stopped. It bulged hideously and without further warning, exploded in a vile spray of black slime and rudimentary organs.
"Pressure differential," Carpenter said and with Rostavili's help, boarded the plane.
The plane's engines roared and in a flurry of loose snow, it raced along the icy runway and pulled itself into the wintry sky.
Carpenter found a seat next to Terence and Rudenko. He gasped slightly as he sat, favouring his left side.
"Are you all right, Father?" Terence looked alarmed.
"Think I broke a rib on that rocket we rode on." He smiled reassurance. "I'll be ok."
"So what happens now?" Rudenko asked. Carpenter examined his wristwatch.
"We have six minutes to get away. After that, the nuclear device in the drilling unit will detonate with a force of thirty megatons. The shock wave will expand and shatter the radioactive anomaly we found and trigger that detonation as well. At least that's the plan. It should be quite dramatic."
Carpenter smiled around his pain. "Terence, will you see if the first aid kit on this plane has any good pain killer?"
Terence and Rudenko got up and investigated, leaving Carpenter alone. He looked around him, seeing Martens and Totleben talking quietly together, laughing. He saw Terence and Rudenko standing close to each other asking about the medication, their hands touching. He saw his old friend Marko watching out the rear port, excitedly checking his watch. Carpenter smiled. Only a little more time and this job would be finished. He felt a breeze and turned to find the source.
"There shouldn't be a draft in a plane like this, even a Russian one," he muttered. He then heard a voice; one he had not heard in many years.
"Hello, Father. Want to go for a walk?"
"Matthew? Is that you?"
Carpenter looked amazed as he recognized the voice of his old friend, Matthew O'Brien, dead all these years, killed during the Archangel Michael Affair. Ever since that time, he would sometimes feel his presence or hear from him in dreams. The pain in his side grew and soon his left arm was tingling. He could just make out Matthew's face in the air in front of him.
Then, the sky lit up as the nuclear device did its destructive work. Carpenter watched the light build and squinted against the glare, people crowding around the view port watching the conflagration. Just as the flash began to subside, a second explosion heaved into the air. The shock wave of the first detonation reached hungrily for the plane and it shook obligingly. The plane was a tough one, despite its age, and it flew on, unimpressed.
Carpenter looked at the light and suddenly the pain was easing, easing. Comfortable now. He could see Matthew quite clearly now, standing before him, a grateful smile on his face.
"Come on, Father. You've done enough. It's time to rest now."
"That sounds good, Matthew. Let's go."
Nicolas Carpenter got up and walked away, Matthew at his side. He looked back once and smiled.
Then he walked into a different light.
Created: October 28, 2006